Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.
The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?
Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.
I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.
Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.
Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.
Time comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”
One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.
Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged America's Favorite Holidays, Bruce David Forbes, Christmas, commercialization, Easter, Halloween, St. Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day